First impressions of life on the Cote D'Azur
by TianjinPaul on April 15, 2011
If you have read some of the other entries in this journal, you will have seen that I very much enjoy a stroll along the Promenade des Anglais – the road that runs along the sea-front in Nice. You may will have also noticed that I enjoy donning my sneakers and enjoying running parallel to the waters of the Mediterranean. It did not take me long to establish this as one of my weekly rituals of life in the south of France. There are, in fact, few better ways to spend a warm Sunday afternoon.However, as wonderful as the scenery on the Promenade des Anglais can be, there are a few drawbacks to running there. The largest of these is the sheer volume of people. On a balmy Sunday afternoon, not only a large proportion of locals, but also scores and scores of tourists descend on the Promenade to enjoy the sunshine. On occasion, there are so many people that the whole area becomes decidedly claustrophobic. Not only are there pedestrians strolling along the sea-front, but there are also bikers and roller-bladers all battling for territory. This situation makes having an enjoyable run almost impossible. There have been occasions in which I have spent more time swerving from side to side to avoid tourists who had stopped suddenly to take a picture than I did actually running in anything like a straight line. There have been others where I have had to take large detours to avoid large families of British tourists walking four abreast and monopolizing the space available on the Promenade. To escape the tourist hordes and to get some breathing space, I have hatched all sorts of schemes. The first of these was to try and run away from the port and centre of Nice and head towards the airport. This helps a little as the traffic on the Promenade dwindles in certain spots. However, there are several beach volleyball and boules courts at the far end of the beach that get very crowded on a hot day. I have also tried running at night. This certainly helped with the congestion. Unfortunately, it had the major drawback of rendering the beautiful scenery null and void. I also faced the problem of encountering rowdy drunks or the army of prostitutes that ply their trade on the promenade after dark.As the weather improved, it seemed like I would be doomed to dealing with the crowds on the Promenade. And, sadly, this is something I have become resigned to. However, there was one Sunday in early April, that gave me a brief taste of liberty. It was a Sunday when the heavens opened and it rained all day, giving me the opportunity to enjoy the sea-front in blissful solitude. Being a native of the north of England, I am no stranger to cool and windy weather. So, when I awoke to grey clouds, pounding rain and blustery winds, I was not fazed. I simply donned my running gear and stepped onto the Promenade. I was alone. So very alone. I was able to run all the way to the airport (about 1km from my apartment) without encountering another soul. I then pounded – and splashed – my way back all the way to the Massena Museum and then home. At this point, I can guess what you are thinking. Surely, the weather would make the view on offer far less impressive. In a way, you would be right. The bright blue sky and the Azur waves of the sea had been replaced by a combination of greys. However, rather than damaging the view, the weather simply changed it. The sea, instead of looking like some inviting photograph from a holiday brochure, took on a deep and ominous shade that seemed to give it a whole new personality. There was also a wonderfully delicate mist drifting in and dancing over the palm trees to create a wonderfully paradoxical feel.The Promenade in the rain was fantastic. It gave me the chance to enjoy my run in peace and also allowed me to view the scene in a completely different light.
I had been in France around a month. During that period, I had spent an enormous of time enjoying the exceptionally rich local cuisine. As a result, I was beginning to worry about my expanding waistline. To combat this, I tried to eat healthier for a little while. However, with rich cheeses and delicious pates seemingly available at every corner, this plan soon fell by the wayside. I decided then that I would have to fall back on plan B, to get some exercise. Thankfully, Nice is one of the greatest places in the world for joggers. The majority of the city is flat, the temperatures are not excessive and there are plenty of safe areas to put in a few kilometers. By far the best of these is Promenade des Anglais. So, one bright Sunday afternoon, I put on sneakers and headed to the seafront.The promenade is around 5km in length. It runs from Nice old town in the East to the airport in the West. The entire length is deliciously flat. Additionally, it runs for the full 5km without any breaks. So, there is no need to cross streets or dodge traffic. The promenade is also perfect for those who want to exercise as the sidewalk is around 20m in width and has a special lane for those wishing to ride their bicycles, ensuring everyone has space to work up a sweat. Because of all this, I was certainly not the only person enjoying a bit of keep-fit on Sunday. In fact, there were hundreds of us and I think I may have enjoyed watching the other people as much as I did my run.Lets star with my fellow joggers, who were certainly a diverse bunch. There were those I would describe as 'regular runners', who would be sporting sneakers and sports clothing. They would tend to be running at something of a regular pace. There were also the 'chic runners'. These people seemed to be concerned more with style than with any physical benefit. They would tend to be wearing black jogging suits and oversize sunglasses. Most of the time, they move ata a very sedate ppace. In fact, I am usually able to overtake them at a brisk stroll. Then, there are the 'professionals', who are usually dressed as though they were attempting the Hawaiian Iron Man race or the London Marathon. There are lots of tight vests and a frightening amount of lycra. Along with runners, there are plenty of other people exercising on the promenade. The most common of these is the cyclists. The promenade has a dedicated cycling lane which allows cyclists to whizz along in peace, safe from traffic. Just as with the runners, there are plenty of professional looking individuals on hi-tech racing bikes bedecked in lycra. Along with these, there are also those using Velo Bleu. The Velo Bleus are public bicycles that are available for rent for a couple of Euros an hour. As they are so cheap and so accessible, lots of locals and tourists use them to tour the city - the promenade is, of course, the most popular place to use them.Along with the runners and cyclists, there are also the roller bladers, who seem to love the flat terrain beside the sea. The roller bladers seem to fall into two categories. The first are the amateur bladers. These are people who are out there just for fun. Some are comfortable gliding along through the breeze. Others seem slightly less au fait and do not as much glide as swerve and stumble. The second group are the professional bladers. These are groups of lycra clad blading enthusiasts who whizz along in groups of four or five following each other in tight lines to ensure aerodynamic performance.With all these different types of fitness enthusiasts on show, the promenade is a bizarrely eclectic sight. I must admit that I enjoy me runs on the promenade as much for the people watching as for the fitness benefits.
If you were to ask the question "What is the first thing you should do in Nice?", the answer would be simple. Take a walk along the Promenade Des Anglais. There is nothing that better evokes images of the French Riviera than the palm-lined road that runs along the beach and looks out onto the tranquil waters of the Mediterranean. When I arrived on the Cote D'Azur there was only thing on mind. So, after dumping my bags in the apartment I was renting, I took myself out for an afternoon stroll. I had already had a bit of a taste of the scenery on show when I flew in. My flight had taken a delightful loop into the airport, which provided a wonderful view of the Bay of Nice and the promenade. However, as wonderful as the view from the plane window was, it could not compare to the scenery up close. When I ambled down Avenue de Fabron and onto the Promenade, the first thing that struck me was the colour of the sea. It was the most stunning shade of blue I had ever seen. It was a deep and remarkably dark colour. However, within the dark waters there seemed to be a hidden trace of turquoise that gave it a bizarrely electric feel. Even though the Promenade curved away invitingly towards the centre of the city and just looked perfect for a stroll, I was felt unable to move. Instead, I was transfixed by the waters - they seemed to have an almost hypnotic appeal. So, I simply stood and stared. As it was winter, I could not walk down the beach and wade into the water as it would have been infinitely too cold. So, I just continued to stare.The walk along the promenade was truly wonderful. Promenade Des Anglais has four lanes of traffic that are divided by a thick verge of palm trees and shrubbery. As I began to walk towards the city, I found myself in something of a daze. Everything just seemed so very pleasant. To my right, the sea lapped against the shores of the gravel beach and shimmered with hypnotic beauty. To my left, were the palms that swayed in the breeze. Beyond the trees, at decent intervals, were some truly awe-inspiring buildings that offered some outrageously classical French style. These included some older structures - such as university halls - that evoked regal elegance and others that had an almost art-deco feel. I was overcome with a sense of having arrived, that this was a place in which I needed to spend a significant amount of time. The scenery and the architecture on the promenade were wonderful. However, so too was the array of people on show. There plenty of rather chic individuals dressed in black and sporting all the latest labels. There were also hundreds of people using the promenade as exercise space with joggers and cyclists abounding. Also, even in winter there were plenty of people sat on the beach enjoying the sea view. At times, I honestly did not know where to look. Should I drink in the natural beauty of the sea and the palm trees? Should I enjoy the stylish local architecture? Or, should I do a bit of people watching.The Promenade des Anglais runs along the length of the Bay of Nice. It is around 5km in length and may well be the greatest place on earth to go for a stroll. It is so wonderful that scarcely a weekend goes by where I do enjoy its wonders.
It was a lazy Friday afternoon in the office. My colleagues and I were winding down in preparation for the weekend. As we began to tidy our desks and shut down our computers, one of the receptionists informed us that it was the first night of the carnival and that we ought to go Place Massena – one of the main squares in central Nice – to enjoy the festivities as the first night was free. For the rest of the festival entrance to the main area would be over 20EU. As I am a massive fan of getting something for nothing, I decided that it was a fine idea. So, a small bunch of us marched down Rue de France to enjoy the sights.It proved to be a bizarre evening. The Place was immensely crowded and was a scene of pure chaos. There were scores of small stalls selling confetti, silly string – foam string that can be squirted from a can – and snow spray. Hundreds of children (and a few adults too) were taking advantage of this to ensure everyone was soon covered in foam or hundreds of tiny pieces of paper. Amidst this chaos we had to wait for the show to begin.When things finally got under-way, there was an overwhelmingly nautical theme about events. In Place de Massena stood a giant inflatable version of Neptune, which was to be finishing post of the parade. It was a bizarre sight as the God of the Sea was red and was bathed in deep orange light, which seemed odd to me - surely, blue would have been a far better colour. I guess there was something artistic that I had overlooked in the whole situation. Neptune was soon joined by scores of balloons depicting various ocean creatures. There some that looked like fish, others that seemed to be jellyfish and one that looked like a giant lobster. These were eerily beautiful. They floated rather gracefully above the crowds and really did give the impression that they were swimming through the waters of the Mediterranean. The jellyfish was particularly captivating as it seemed to genuinely be floating and drifting above our heads.We stayed for the main part of the performance, which was pretty impressive, and then headed our separate ways – all covered in confetti and silly string. I guessed that my brief flirtation would be all I would see of the carnival. I presumed it would last over the weekend and maybe into the following week. However, over the next three weeks, I found that I just could not escape the carnival and that it began to grate on me a little. The first thing that began to get to me was the predictability. There were shows and parades around the old town, along the sea-front and into Place De Massena almost everyday. Even though admission to Place de Massena was quite expensive, there were plenty of side shows and parades that were still free. I must have seen the sea-creatures that had been the star attraction on the first evening around seven or eight times more during the remainder of the carnival. Apparently, they made an appearance everyday. This seemed to me to be overkill. However, it was the same for the whole event. Sadly, many of the other parts of it were far less awe-inspiring. The sea-creatures had been elegantly crafted and looked genuinely beautiful. However, there were also a series of floats that sported cartoon style characters that were amusing on their first outing, but which soon began to get very annoying very quickly. For example, there were three or four giant figures with frighteningly pink skin that were depicting sun burned tourists. This make me chuckle the first time I saw it as even in early March my pale English complexion was struggling with the Riviera sun. The joke was far less funny the third and fourth time I spotted them ambling down the sea-front. The same was true of the confetti. Getting sprayed on the first evening was rather fun. It created a very carefree environment and a sense of allowing caution to fly to the wind. But, when three weeks later I was still finding kids wanting to throw the stuff at me as I tried to get through the celebrations to my office, I felt far less carefree.
If I were to ask you to picture the Cote D'Azur and the city of Nice, what images would spring to mind? I would imagine that the first thing to float across your brain would be palm trees, perhaps closely followed by bright blue seas. Then, in quick succession, we might conjure the idea of expensive cars – convertibles with their tops down – or well-dressed locals sporting over-sized sunglasses and Prada handbags. In fairness, you do not need to spend too long in Nice to see all of these. In fact, a brief stroll along the Promenade Des Anglais provides a plentiful supply of them all. However, since moving to Nice, I have noticed that it is not all tres chic. There are a few other things that you might encounter that really do not fit with the image of the French Riviera.For the first of these factors, we need to look at a passion that is rooted deeply in French culture. Dogs. Around Nice, you see hundreds. These range from large animals straining their owners leash, to tiny pampered little creatures that sit in handbags. In short, the French love their chiens. Sadly, they are not so keen on cleaning up after them. As a result of this, the streets are covered in a frightening amount of excrement. On most streets, the average pedestrian really has to keep their eyes open and their wits about them to avoid stepping in something sticky. During my first couple of weeks on the Cote D'Azur, I had to move between hotels a couple of times. This involved me wheeling my suitcase around town, a process which left its wheels in less than pleasant condition. No-one enjoys cleaning the wheels of their case with a toothbrush and a peg on their nose!It is not just, though, some unpleasant canine surprises that haunt the streets of Nice. There are also a couple of other factors that are quite alarming. The first of these is the beggars. In an area of such wealth and beauty, homeless people begging in the street become highly conspicuous. They are also highly frequent. As I walk to work in a morning, I cover 2 or 3km along Avenue Californie and Rue De France (Roads which run parallel to the sea-front). On these roads, I will regularly encounter five or six beggars before I get to my office. Having lived in some countries where poverty is high – China and Mongolia being the strongest examples – sights like this are not new. But, I must admit, they were a major surprise when I first arrived. Not only was I shocked by the prevalence of beggars, I was also deeply shocked at just how cosmopolitan they were. For example, one occasion I came across a rather intimidating looking chap with tattoos over both arms and a large scar across his face. He approached me asking for money in French. As he looked quite frightening, I was not particularly keen to engage him. So, I simply told him in French that I was English and did not understand. To my surprise, he responded rather eloquently telling me that he had no food, and, asked if I could give him two Euros for breakfast. I must admit, I was not expecting such an intimidating and ragged looking figure to be bi-lingual. So, I dropped a few cents into his palm and moved on. Even though that encounter certainly surprised me, it proved to be far from unique. As the Cote D'Azur is such a cosmopolitan area and attracts people from across the globe, it must surely pay for those living on the streets to make their pleas in different languages. On several occasions, I have been approached and found myself in a similar scenario, with the beggar speaking to me in my own language.To illustrate the final surprise from the streets of Nice, I need to describe the end of an evening out in Nice Old Town. My colleagues and I had been to a bar in the main area of the Old Town, a couple of blocks from the sea-front. After a few beers and a little dancing, we parted ways and I began to walk home along Promenade des Anglais (The main road along the sea-front). The first thing I noticed that was a little amiss was the amount of people waiting at the bus stops. I found it strange that the buses ran so late as it was well into the early hours. I was also surprised at how many of those waiting seemed to be rather scantily clad young – and youngish – women. Only then did it begin to dawn on me that they were perhaps not waiting for a bus and were, in fact, waiting for customers. They were all prostitutes. Feeling rather embarrassed and also a little nervous and intimidated, I decided to change my route home. So, I moved onto Avenue de Californie. However, the scene was the same, except the women seemed a little less young and a little less glamorous – although I am sure 'glamorous' is not the correct word. The following day I asked one of my colleagues about what I saw. He confirmed that it was a common sight, particularly on weekend evenings. He also confirmed that the young ladies on the Promenade were considered to be of a far higher standard, "executive prostitutes" he termed it. I decided that I did not want to learn any more and would try to find a slightly more sedate route home.
I am never a major fan of either eating or staying too close to a train station. No matter where I venture, it always seems that a city’s main station tends to be a beacon for scams and rip-off’s. For example, some of the worst Chinese food I have ever eaten was close to the stations in Tianjin and Datong. Similarly, I have seen some rather dismal looking places to stay in such areas. However, when I arrived in Nice, I was on a budget and hotels on the Cote D’Azur can be very pricey. Therefore, I took the risk of making an online booking at the Hotel Pastoral. Thankfully, even though the hotel was certainly nothing spectacular, this proved to be far from the worst decision I have ever made.The first thing to note about Pastoral is not the easiest place in the world to find. It is located on the first floor of an elegant building situated on a side-street adjoining Rue Jean Medecin, Nice’s largest shopping street. I checked in quite late in the evening and had a little trouble actually finding the place. The side street is not particularly well marked and the hotel only has a very small sign that is not visible from the main road. This all meant that I spent 45 minutes dragging my suitcase around in the dark.The second thing to note about Pastoral is the security. This was a major concern of mine as the area around the station is not one of the safest in Nice. It is not particularly wee lit and there seem to be plenty of gangs of youths hanging around on street corners. To my relief, the hotel allayed all my concerns. Not only did it have large exterior doors that could only be opened using a security code, but it also had a second interior door that shielded guests from the streets outside. There were plenty of other hotels in the area that looked far less secure and far more open to thieves.Once inside, I found the Pastoral something of a mystery. The rooms managed to blend the twenty-first century with the nineteenth century. The décor and the bed in my room were far less than impressive. They looked like something from a by-gone age. That a comment I do not mean in a positive light – the bedding seemed threadbare and dull, whilst the walls looked like they had not been painted for many years. My first impression was one of disappointment. Even though I was spending just 30 Euros per night, I was expecting something a little better. However, when I opened the bathroom door, I was astounded. The room was better than many I have encountered in five-star hotels – it was truly stunning. The disparity confused me. How could the bed and the décor in the main part of the room be so old and drab and the bathroom so modern and luxurious?I stayed at the Pastoral for 6 days. Overall the stay was not too bad, aside from the bed. The price was also very reasonable at 35 Euros per night.
When I was a small boy and my family went on vacation by plane, I always felt the need to occupy the seat by the window, to gaze out and see the wondrous sights below. As I have grown older – and my legs have grown longer – I have begun to appreciate the value of the greater leg room offered by sitting on the aisle rather than by the window. After several flights across Europe and Asia, I have also concluded that there is rarely too much that is actually worth seeing. However, I changed my mind just a little as I arrived on the Cote D’Azur and my flight made its final approach to Nice Airport.As I had booked my flight just a couple of days before departure, I had been unable to reserve and aisle seat – they were all occupied – so I was left with a seat by the window. I knew Nice was a beautiful location, but I was not optimistic of seeing too much of beauty through the window. The precedents I had experienced for arriving in beautiful cities were poor. On the three occasions have landed in New York, the weather was grey and completely obliterated any of the famous skyline. When I flew into Istanbul, all I managed to see was a few tower blocks and some scattered office parks.In fact, there were only two occasions on which I ever saw anything interesting. The first was when I flew into Ulaan Baatar in Mongolia. And, this example was not really an example of great beauty. As the city is surrounded by miles and miles and miles of frozen nothingness the view was pretty bland. I was, though, able to spot the city from a great distance away the dark shroud of pollution that hovers above grew larger and larger on the horizon. The only time I can recall being dazzled by beauty through the airplane window was when I arrived in Muscat in Oman. I had flown to Muscat from Dubai across the desert, but as the flight neared its destination, it followed the line of the coast into the city. The view was fantastic. It took in bright blue seas, hundreds of palm trees and some stunning beaches.Arriving in Nice topped all of these, though. The airport is situated, literally, meters from the sea. And to land many flights coming from the north must loop around and approach from the south. This meant that my flight from Heathrow did a grand arc and came in over the Mediterranean. In the course of this arc we looped over the bay and across the beautifully blue sea, past the harbor, which was full of some unbelievably expensive yachts and along the palm-lined sea-front before touching down. For the first time in many years I actually enjoyed being cramped up by the window.Two weeks later I headed to Paris on business. Sadly, on the return leg for the flight, my awful record re-asserted itself as the flight looped in over the darkened hills behind the city, leaving me with a massive sense of disappointment at missing out on the wonderful view.
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